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North Carolina and Old Christmas

A North Carolina Christmas!

A North Carolina Christmas!

Old Christmas at the Outer Banks

Although there are Old Christmas (January 6th) observances held across the state of North Carolina, the Outer Banks region of North Carolina is best known for holding on to its Old Christmas traditions. Rodanthe is said to have the biggest party of all. Every year the community comes together for a day of festivities that include a main attraction—oysters!

Rodanthe's Big Party

The party starts at 1 PM with an oyster shoot. That is like a turkey shoot, only the winners take home a half-bushel of oysters instead of a turkey. Oysters are roasted all day and into the evening until the revelers cannot eat another one, and then at 6 PM, a chicken and pastry supper is served. After supper, the band tunes up and the crowd enjoys music and dancing. To add to the spirit of goodwill the Fairhaven United Methodist Church youth group donates treat bags for Santa to give out to the children.

The high point of the celebration is not the appearance of Santa Claus, even though he comes to hand out the treats. It is the appearance of Old Buck that the Old Christmas celebrators anticipate once supper is done and the music starts. Based on the legend of a wild bull that terrorized the community in days gone by, the “ghost” of Old Buck has been crashing the Rodanthe Old Christmas Party at least since the 1940s. Old Buck comes in dancing and running around and causing a ruckus with some partiers chasing him, and sometimes tackling him to the floor. It’s all in fun.

John Edgar Herbert, Jr. played the part of Old Buck for many years. After his death, his son inherited the role.

What Is Old Christmas?

A little history lesson may be needed to explain what Old Christmas is all about. It goes back to the year 1582, when the inefficient and inaccurate Julian calendar was replaced with the Gregorian calendar by Catholic European countries. Protestant Europe kept the old Julian calendar for almost 200 years longer because they “would not have the pope tell them what to do.”

Because of the way the calendars worked, by the time England came around to adopting the new calendar in 1752, they were eleven days off from the rest of Europe. They dropped the eleven days, and Christmas was moved back to December 25th from January 6th. The people believed the eleven days had been stolen from them. Riots erupted in some cities with the people screaming, “Give us back our eleven days!”

The news of the change did not reach the colonists living in North Carolina until well after 1752. They continued celebrating on the old Christmas day, ignoring the new date even after they received the news. England did not care and violence was avoided.

Colonial North Carolinians had a reputation for enjoying any excuse for a good party. As time went by, the Gregorian calendar became accepted. Rather than changing the date of Christmas, we saw it as an opportunity for a longer holiday. Many communities celebrated Christmas on both dates, and some just celebrated all the way through for the whole two weeks. On the Outer Banks, some communities held one date as a religious day and others celebrated in a more secular manner. Depending on one’s inclination, people visited back and forth between towns, managing to hold religious services in one place and the more celebratory observance in another.

Eastern NC Old Christmas and Oysters Go Together

Eastern NC Old Christmas and Oysters Go Together

Old Christmas in the Mountains

In other parts of the state, some interesting Old Christmas traditions have survived over the centuries. One of those traditions is called Breaking Up Christmas, which is best known in the mountain region of the Tarheel State. In the old days, with winter being a slow time of year, the people just kept on celebrating from December 25 until January 6, taking turns hosting music, dancing, and feasting at one another’s homes. In an interview by Leda Hartman, Paul Sutphin, guitar player with the band, “The Smokey Valley Boys,” said that the host family would move the furniture outdoors, cook a big meal and the musicians stood in the doorway to make more room inside for dancing. Breaking Up Christmas parties are still held in various places in Western North Carolina and Tennessee.

A fiddle tune was written by an unknown songwriter to honor the Breaking Up Christmas tradition:

“Hooray, Jack and Hooray John,

Breaking up Christmas all night long.

Way back yonder, a long time ago,

Way down yonder alongside the creek,

I seen Santy Claus washing his feet.

Santa Claus come, done and gone,

Breaking up Christmas right along.”

The Old Christmas date is observed in the church as the Day of Epiphany, the day the three wise men brought gifts to the baby Jesus. The mountain folk tell the story that in honor of the Christ child at the stroke of midnight on Twelfth Night Eve, the barnyard animals can be seen kneeling, and no matter how cold the weather, the elderberry bushes will bloom. Other old traditions include not removing ashes from the fireplace or changing the bedsheets during the Twelve Days of Christmas, December 25 through January 6th. To do so was believed to invite bad luck for the coming year.

To get a feel for Old Christmas traditions, visit Old Stone House in Granite Quarry, North Carolina during the holiday. The building, built in 1766, is the oldest in Rowan County. Visitors can tour the house and watch costumed guides demonstrate old-time customs, listen to period music, and see how Christmas was celebrated during the colonial period.

Questions & Answers

Question: Do they believe in Christmas trees?

Answer: Christmas trees were not common until the mid-1800s in America. So, they wouldn't have been part of the Old Christmas decor when it was first celebrated in the 1700s. I am sure it is now used by those who are celebrating Old Christmas, too.

© 2008 Donna Campbell Smith